The Met's Spring 2012 Costume Institute exhibition, Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, explores the striking affinities between Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada, two Italian designers from different eras. Inspired by Miguel Covarrubias's "Impossible Interviews" for Vanity Fair in the 1930s, the exhibition features orchestrated conversations between these iconic women to suggest new readings of their most innovative work. Iconic ensembles are presented with videos of simulated conversations between Schiaparelli and Prada directed by Baz Luhrmann, focusing on how both women explore similar themes in their work through very different approaches.
The show was divided into seven themes: "Waist Up/Waist Down," "Ugly Chic," "Hard Chic," "Naïf Chic," "The Classical Body," "The Exotic Body," and "The Surreal Body." Schiaparelli explained that she focused on the waist-up because, in the cafe culture of her time, women displayed most that part of themselves when seated. Prada, however, focused on the waist-down because that part of the body is, for her, where life thrives, in sex and childbirth; it grounds the body to the earth.
Through their most radical collections, both designers expanded the definition of feminine beauty by combining power and softness. Schiaparelli's padded shoulders gave women a more angular silhouette. Her buttons, whether they are military brass or swinging monkeys, always called for attention. Prada used unconventional materials like plastic and feathers to toughen up the look of silk and lace. I was especially taken by one design in which the front of a dress is covered with animal fur, like the chest of a hairy man. Her feathers also broke out of the flat backs of most clothes.
This paragraph from the Met's website explains succinctly the different political and aesthetic affinities of the two women:
Schiaparelli, who worked in Paris from the 1920s until her house closed in 1954, was closely associated with the Surrealist movement and created such iconic pieces as the "Tear" dress, the "Shoe" hat, and the "Bug" necklace. Prada, who holds a degree in political science, took over her family's Milan-based business in 1978, and focuses on fashion that reflects the eclectic nature of Postmodernism.
Schiaparelli was certain that fashion design is an art. Prada countered that fashion design is creative, but not an art. She continued, in a Postmodernist accent, what does it matter whether it is an art or not. She wanted to make everybody look beautiful.